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February 13, 1998


Saisuresh Sivaswamy

Understanding the Sonia enigma

More than a month since former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi's widow stepped out of the shadows to campaign for the Congress, there is enough egg on her detractors's faces to make omelettes for the Indian army for eternity.

What is it about Sonia that the entire brigade of opinion-makers, news reporters and editors, not to leave out veteran politicians of the stature of L K Advani and Mamata Banerjee has been exposed for speaking its mind too soon, and worse, shutting its mind to what was as yet an unexplored theory?

It is very easy to attribute the Sonia impact to the hold of the dynasty on the Indian psyche; it is easier to believe, sitting in our armchairs and allowing our minds to be moulded by closed minds, that while she may be drawing crowds -- just as a circus does, or as Imran Khan and Lakshmi Parvathi did -- there is no guarantee that she will be pulling the votes.

There is more to why Sonia has managed to stop the BJP juggernaut in its tracks -- a conclusion reached so far by diverse opinion polls, and which will be put to the test when the ballot boxes are opened in early March -- than a mere curiosity, or the drawing power of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty.

Dynasty, as we in India know only too well, passes on through male order, and seldom has been the case in our history when the distaff side has been credited with the task of furthering the lineage. If it was simply a question of the bahu taking the husband's place, may I humbly point out that after 1991, when Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated, till 1998 when his wife decided to take over his mantle, there has been another daughter-in-law from the same family who drew sustenance not from airy-fairy foundations that perpetuated her husband's memory but from the rough and tumble of politics.

In 1996, she became a member of Parliament for the second time, after having been a minister of state in two governments. She too carries the Gandhi surname. If the Sonia phenomenon can be explained by simply in terms of transmogrification of the legacy, then surely Maneka Gandhi, widow of Rajiv's younger brother Sanjay, who was a greater claimant to Indira's affections, has better credentials?

There can be another explanation, equally simplistic, for the Sonia mystique, that it is the combination of the legacy factor as well as the Congress's own organisational skills. After all, what has Maneka been up to other than toiling on behalf of a virtually non-existent political party, whereas Sonia has the advantage of an entrenched, and dominant political organisation?

This argument could only partly be true. If the organisation were all that powerful, then the verdict in the 1996 election, that rejected it wholeheartedly despite the fact that P V Narasimha Rao -- warts, pouts and all -- steered the nation through a grim period in its history rather well. Obviously, it was not enough to impress the voting public.

To say that the nation needed a fair skin, or that we as a civilisation are still caught in a time-warp and that we cannot exist without marrying the high ideals of parliamentary democracy with a physical icon in the form of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty would be re-peddling popular Western myths about us as a people. No doubt a popular theory, but so is pop psychology.

Having said all this, let me try and offer two explanations of my own, as to why Sonia has been able to do what the Centre for Media Studies said has never been done by an Indian politicians before, to wit, to garner coverage of the kind that she has met with, without holding a single press conference, without offering a substantive interview since her decision to barnstorm the electoral arena, and which coverage is normally reserved for politicians with three to four decades of public service behind them.

One reason why Sonia has been successful has to do with the Congress itself. Revile it, curse it, dynamite it, but there is no hiding from the fact that 50 years after Independence it remains the only pan-Indian political outfit that reaches homes in Aizawl as well as Alappuzha. Granted, it has a lot to do with the fact that the national movement, of which it was both part and form, has left it with certain traits that would be derided as monopolistic in business circles. Hindu, Muslim, Parsi, Christian, Sikh, everybody flocked to the party because for one, there was no other, and another, all the stalwarts of the national movement belonged to this party. Thus it was that other claimants like the Hindu Mahasabha and the Swatantra Party remained on the fringes of politics after a brief, meteor-like existence.

Fifty years on, the party still continues to influence Indians. It may have been wrong so many times over, but the choice has not been something the nation have been comfortable with. Yes, the BJP has been gaining, but that is a direct fallout of the Congress's withdrawal -- and not the other way around. As a first choice, Indians would rather vote for an inoffensive, cosmopolitan party like the Congress, rather than an exclusive, negative formation like the BJP.

And as proof of this theory -- which is bound to go down badly with Rediff readers -- I offer the new-look BJP. Which, having realised that its politics of hate can only take it this far and no further, and having realised that it is only the Congress brand of politics that is pan-Indian, has shed its figleaf and ideology together.

The second reason for Sonia's success is the media hype that is accompanying every motion of hers since she announced her decision to campaign for the Congress party. Journalists as a breed are like wild dogs -- they hunt in packs. Having reached collective orgasm over the incommunicado occupant of 10, Janpath, they have blitzed the nation with reports of Sonia's campaign, be it on television, newspapers and simple word of mouth. The media first created the Sonia myth, and is now turning a myth into legend. The reality between the two extremes, will be known in early March.

Saisuresh Sivaswamy

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